Tuesday, 3 May 2011


Looking forward to spending a couple of days on the long beaches of Cadiz, Mia and I set off from Seville around midday, arriving to grey skies and chilly Atlantic winds a couple of hours later.

View from the hotel

Navigating the local bus system was straightforward, and we found our hotel. It lacked the character of our nice room in Seville, but was very clean and comfortable, providing nice views of the ocean from the second floor.

The weather ruled out the beach, and so we walked the couple of miles back into the city along the water. There were one or two brave souls in wetsuits trying to make the most of the surf, although I didn’t notice any waves above two meters.

The city itself is said to be the oldest in Europe, and unfortunately has not been maintained particularly well over the years. We spent some time wandering around, and saw the cathedral from the outside and also the ruins of a Roman theatre. The theatre was completely shut off for reparations and the cathedral looked to be undergoing some as well. We decided not to linger at either.

Roman theatre ruins

The streets are a bit wider than Seville, and it was generally easier to find our way around. We sat down for a very nice lunch of calamari and a local fish specialty.  After this the rest of the day was spent walking to see the few small sights and parks that are dotted around the small city.

Local fish

Mia was very keen to experience some flamenco dancing while we were in Spain, and the helpful lady at the tourist office recommended a place on the way back to the hotel. We found our way there later that evening and were provided with a really good (and free!) show of flamenco dancing and singing.
There was a guitarist, several singers and a percussionist who supported a very talented young male dancer who clapped and tapped his red shoes about the stage at the speed of a humming bird flapping its wings. It was quite a performance, and also looked to be a graduation of sorts for him, as he was rewarded with some kind of commendation at the end. The whole experience was very authentic, and it appeared that this was the thing to do at the end of the week for the local citizens. The place was rammed full of a few hundred people, and Mia and I were very grateful to be able to see the show. I have to congratulate Mia on fending off waves of Spaniards trying to pinch my seat as I battled through the throngs at the bar to get us a few drinks.

Sunbathing and beaching was again ruled out for us the following day as the grey clouds and rain set in early. We again caught the bus back into town and visited the local market that was selling huge quantities of fresh seafood as well as at least as many delicatessens around the outside selling varieties of meats, fruit and cheese. Picking up some strawberries, we wandered out to the last remaining monument we hadn’t yet caught a glimpse of, found a nice tapas bar for some lunch and wine and whiled away the rest of the day having a few drinks, reflecting on the trip so far. We would make our way back to Seville the following morning, and then back to London the day after.

Cadiz fish market

All in all, Cadiz didn’t really go the way we’d hoped. I imagine that later in the year the weather would be much warmer and more amiable to beach activities. At this time of year there is only the sights of the city itself, which couldn’t really hold a candle to the magnificence of Seville, that we’d just experienced. We were very glad to be heading back to spend one more afternoon in Seville and finish our Spanish excursion on a high note.

I found it interesting that the Spanish don’t really speak much English, which compared to other western and central European countries, was a bit of an oddity. At the same time though, they are still quite a friendly people, and are willing to engage in a bit of communicative charades. Mia and I have both really enjoyed southern Spain, and are keen to visit again sometime. Perhaps Granada?

The best part of Spain

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Sunny Seville

With the royal wedding coming up, giving us an additional public holiday, Mia and I were able to take only a few days off to provide a total break of nearly twelve days.

We had already decided that we didn’t want to be around for the royal wedding itself; neither of us being particular monarchists nor wanting to deal with the throngs of tourists invading the city of London for this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Our rooms courtyard

We booked ourselves a couple of tickets to Spain and left on Easter Monday night down to Gatwick airport to sleep over at a hotel to catch our 6AM flight the next day. Once in Seville, we caught the bus to the city center and found our hotel, the Hotel Convento La Gloria, a remodelled convent. It was nestled in a few side streets quite close to the main attraction of Seville, the cathedral. We dropped off our things and began to explore.

The first thing that struck us was the abundance of orange trees all through the city.  They line the streets and are dotted around corners. It is the time of year when they are in full bloom although neither of us was adventurous enough to pick any. We were able to try some freshly squeezed in a number of places, and this was quite tasty.

An orange tree in front of Torre del Oro

We wandered around for most of the day, moving from the cathedral up through the north-east part of the town and then back down through the central area, tourist map in hand dotted with interesting looking landmarks and symbols.

It turns out that nearly all of these landmarks were churches, all in various states of use and disrepair. If Adelaide has the title of ‘City of Churches’, then I think those who gave it such a title should consider a visit to Seville.

Some of the old wall
There were a couple of more interesting things to see, such as a good section of the old wall that would have surrounded the city at some point, as well as some of the governmental buildings that were also very old. It is interesting to note that most buildings have small courtyards, usually with a water fountain or feature in the center. Also quite prominent were elaborate mosaics of painted tiles all over the city. Seville clearly has a rich history of ceramics and pottery.

As the day drew to a close we wandered back to a pub we’d stumbled upon earlier in the day with an old wooden bar and many legs of cured ham hanging from the ceiling. It turns out that it is the oldest bar in Seville, and we quickly made friends with the bartender who could speak a few words of English and recommended some excellent (and cheap!) wine, as well as a great selection of ham and cheese. He also introduced us to the idea of drinking a white wine after dinner instead of the stronger spirits, and that turned out to be very refreshing; a concept we intend to pursue further.

Tapas in a 300 year old bar

The following day we decided to examine the two main tourist attractions, being the royal palaces followed by the cathedral. The royal palaces were interesting enough, but in my opinion once you’ve seen a couple you’ve seen them all. Windsor Castle, Edinburgh Castle, Seville Royal Palace… which one are we in again? To be fair, it was quite unique, as Seville used to be an Islamic state, and the palace had been taken over from the days when it was used by the Muslim royal equivalents. As a result, much of the architecture has a strong Moorish influence, as well as the gardens outside.  The gardens themselves were quite enormous, extending well out behind the palace with plenty of water features adorning corners and pathways.

Courtyard of the Alcazar Palace

Inside there were a variety of massive tapestries, paintings and the like, as well as an innumerable quantity of mosaic tiles covering all of the walls. Apparently the palace is still in use, however the Spanish royalty chose not to make an appearance amongst the thousands of tourists and tour groups piling through the place.

After a couple of hours in there I was properly bored, and managed to drag Mia out and back into the baking streets of Seville. She got in the rather long line to enter the cathedral whilst I sought out a cash machine, coffee, some water and gelato. Returning with my prizes, to find Mia quite a long way through the queue, we finished off these items and entered the third largest cathedral in the world. It was definitely massive, with many little chapels surrounding the central nave, each dedicated to a saint, king or other noble dignitary.

We made our way up the 34 ramps and 17 steps to the viewing area of the bell tower that provided views across all of Seville. To be honest, the city does not have much to offer in terms of tall views. The roofs are fairly plain, and few of the churches have spires or identifying features that would otherwise break up the splay of housing. It was quite clear to see from above all of the snaking narrow roads that reminded me quite a lot of what it is like in Venice. The difference here is that the roads are actually named, so with an accurate map it is not too hard to find your way around.

Inside the massive cathedral

The descent back down into the cathedral was fairly rapid, and we finished circling the inner area, finally finding what I was most curious to see: the tomb of Christopher Colombus. It is a very grand sculpture of his sarcophagus being carried by four kings, and it stands in the back of the cathedral. I spent a while checking it out, whilst Mia exclaimed ‘I didn’t know he was Spanish!’

Me 'n Chris

We had a look at the bullring, although couldn’t enter due to a bullfighting show that was happening in a few hours.


It was quite expensive for a ticket, and neither of us was particularly interested in the spectacle. We had a look at the Plaza de Espanol, a huge semi-circle construction with an enormous water fountain in the center, and then spent some time in the surrounding gardens.

Plaza de Espana

Exhausted from the miles and miles of walking over the past couple of days, we went back to the old bar and had a meal, which was unfortunately not as great as the tapas we’d had there the day previous.
We then slept in until midday, rising a few hours earlier for breakfast and then determining that we hadn’t quite rested enough, and simply wandered around from bar to bar eating tapas and drinking orange juice, beer and wine. Finding ourselves at a recommended restaurant, we ate yet more pork for dinner with some great wine and finished the evening off at the ‘religious bar’, which is exactly as it sounds. With more figures of Mary and Jesus than most churches, it was most uncomfortable (for me) to be stared at by these lifeless effigies as we sipped on our ‘Blood of Christ’ cocktails, a mixture of whisky, champagne and grenadine.

Blood of Christ in the religious bar 'Garlochi'

Deciding not to stick around for a second drink, I scurried Mia and I out of there and recovered our senses with a white wine followed by the smoothest Anis I’d ever tasted at a more traditional Spanish bar.

So ended our time in Seville. The following morning we rose for another excellent breakfast in the hotel, made our way across to the train station and departed for our next destination, Cadiz.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

After a three and a half year hiatus, I decided to update this little journal of travel, adventure and general shenanigans.

What’s happened in the interim? The cliff notes would read something like this:

Arrived in London, found girlfriend, got job at soulless bank working in quantitative finance. Had several trips back home, spent Day of the Dead in Mexico City, saw Northern Wales with girlfriend, proposed in Scotland and spent the next year between London and Edinburgh planning the wedding. Went to Portugal as best man for best mates stag party, and held the title of longest rider of the mechanical bull. Performed best man role back in Melbourne and soon after had my own stag party in Amsterdam where I found my way on stage during a live sex show (my clothes stayed on). I then got married to my wonderful wife with a traditional African ceremony in London and white wedding a couple of days later in Edinburgh. Six months later we had our honeymoon cruise through the Caribbean and spent new year’s eve of 2011 in New York City.

That was all good fun.

So that brings us, dear reader, to my most recent excursion to the alien landscape of Iceland. Mia (that’s the wife) and I were planning on visiting during our honeymoon, however logistically this proved difficult. We deferred it to February of 2011 and spent the most recent extended weekend within its deceptively hospitable shores.

We arrived late on a Wednesday night and found a bus to Hotel Bjork where we would spend the next several nights. Luckily the hotel did not subscribe to the Icelandic musician of the same name, and we managed to find our room and bed< by about two thirty in the morning where sleep was quickly embraced.

Our first full day was spent with Iceland Horizons ‘Southern Shores’ tour. This would be the first of two full day excursions spent with a British guide, David, who had relocated to Iceland over a decade ago. He was an entertaining man with a penchant for describing things in great detail. This included a history of the island and its Viking heritage and language. The landscape is quite striking, with large volcanic mountains separating large open rock plains. Iceland is a continually growing island, both outwards due to tectonic and volcanic activity, but also rising up from out of the Atlantic ocean. This means that many of the plains that we drove through used to be ocean seabed.

There are many and various farming homesteads out in the lava plains. David explained how as new materials and building methods were brought to Iceland over the past hundred years or so, the residents would build a newer, better house not too far from the old one, and convert the previous to a storage facility for livestock or supplies. As a result, each of the different farming areas would generally have a fairly old turf building, usually built into the rock and a couple of other more modern structures.

We passed by Eyjafjallajoekull, the volcano which erupted in April of 2010 and caused untold inconvenience to most of Europe and around the world. Interestingly enough, only about 25 homesteads were affected in Iceland itself. The volcano is on the south shore of the island, and the winds blew the eight kilometre high ash cloud south and away from the island. Icelanders continued flying in and out of the Americas, whilst the majority of Europe was grounded due to the airborne ash.
The area around the south shore is amazing. We saw two large waterfalls, both of which it were very accessible. This provided some nice photo opportunities before we continued on to a glacier within the foothills of the surrounding mountains. I had never seen a glacier outside of a photograph before, and the deep blue of the massive ice formation is not given justice by my camera. Apparently this is created from oxygen, compressed under the immense weight of ice.
We continued along the coast to the southernmost village of Vik, where Mia and I both ordered a traditional lamb soup. We saw some incredible black sand beaches with a basalt cave that I felt was one of the highlights of the trip. The wind and weather in this area was quite violent, so we quickly piled back into the van and headed back to Reykjavik.

That night we attempted to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), my primary motivation for coming to Iceland. The forecast for the aurora was the strongest all year, so we went out with high hopes for a stunning light show. A massive solar flare had been registered only days earlier, and it is this sort of solar activity that is the necessary prelude to the atmospheric event.

Unfortunately the Northern Lights are a natural phenomena and are never guaranteed. Apparently the solar flare was so strong that it pushed the corona much further south than Iceland, and was probably visible as far as Scotland and Ireland. Luckily our tour guide for this trip was also very entertaining and gave us a good history of the area we were shivering in and some of the details of the more recent fishing wars between Iceland and Britain.

Undeterred, we ventured out again the following evening and after standing in the biting wind for a few hours we were rewarded in a small, but still very striking display of the Northern Lights. I finally was able to fulfil a dream of playing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon whilst standing under such an incredible spectacle. Mia and I both agreed it was a very cool thing to experience and was worth braving the cold.

Of course that was in the evening of the second day. Before that we had spent the sunlight hours on the Golden Circle tour with David. This consisted of another beautiful and enormous waterfall that we couldn’t get quite as close to, and seeing some of the natural hot water geysers in the surrounding area. Both of these sights were interesting and I managed to get drenched by one of the larger geysers attempting to create a killer photo.

We also managed to stop by and pet some Icelandic horses, one of which seemed to take a particular liking to the taste of my ski jacket. Iceland has had a law in place for over one thousand years that prevents any horses from being imported into the country. As a result, the seventy thousand horses that currently populate the island are all descendants of the original Norse breeds that were introduced over a millennia ago. They are a very pure species, fetching a high price among horse collectors the world over.

The last stop was in the national park that we had spent the first night waiting for the Northern Lights, and whilst it had some quite pretty scenery, by this stage Mia and I were a bit over sight-seeing.

The following day we had a wander through the main strip of Reykjavik, visited the flea market and ‘world famous hot dog stall’. Neither of these were particularly good, and so a bus was found that took us to the rather more world famous Blue Lagoon. Mia and I spent the afternoon there, alternating between the warm blue water pool, smearing silica mud on our faces (Mia more so than me), and the various steam rooms and saunas that were available. A great way to relax after two very busy days of seeing the main sights of Iceland. Once our skin was sufficiently waterlogged, we dried off and found our way back to the hotel for a much needed sleep before our rather rude four thirty morning alarm clock to get our early flight back to London.

Overall Iceland was a great trip. The scenery is incredible and unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. The whole island might as well be one massive volcano (rather than the forty odd that comprise it currently), and the landscape is something out of another world. Between amazing waterfalls, the lava plains, the Northern Lights and the steam vents coming straight out of the ground, Iceland is a very unique place to be, and I can see why its residents are very proud of their home despite some of its harsher living conditions.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Bemusement in Berlin

My first day in Berlin saw me get up, check out of my hostel and head across town, closer to the center of Berlin, Mitte, and check into a hostel over there. Berlin isn't terribly centralised, but Mitte (basically a suburb) was definitely closer to what was happening than way out where my original hostel was. I just couldn't get in there straight off the bat.

I had agreed to meet Renske at the walking tour, and searched around sometime about midday. We found each other, and she had brought a couple of her friends along with her. An Israeli pair, they were doing a spot of travelling themselves. There were a huge number of people crowded around to do the walking tour, and the guides quickly organised everyone, firstly by language and then due to the extent of the English speakers, they split us up into two groups of about 30.

Our guide was a young Singaporean guy with an American accent and a very powerful voice. He had been in Berlin for near on a year, and obviously loved the place. He spoke with a lot of passion, and was able to deliver to us the modern history of the city in a very entertaining fashion. We saw the Jewish memorial, a collection of grey blocks all arranged in a square area and the Brandenburg Gate, where all conquerers of Berlin tended to parade through. We saw several large buildings, from churches to universities to libraries to massive parliament buildings (the Reichstag). There was checkpoint charlie, the site of the Nazi book burnings, parts of the Berlin wall, and the whole thing culminated at museum island where our guide gave us a very animated story about the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany. It was definitely the best walking tour I'd done on my trip so far, and it was incredible to hear how much history had happened so recently to now.

Renske and I parted ways, and she went to catch up with her Israeli friends who had run off halfway through the tour to chase some other fancy. I got back to the hostel, had a chat with another Melbournite in my room along with another Aussie guy from Sydney who was travelling around with a Scottish girl. The pair of them work on one of the cruise ships that go gallavanting around the world, and they both had some interesting stories to tell. Apparently when working on one of these ships, it is a 7 day a week job until you get back to port, which can (at times) take up to months!

Later that evening I went down to a metro station in the former East Berlin and hung around waiting for Renske and her friends to show up. It was a very dodgy area, with several vagrants wandering around and hassling each other whilst drunk. I was nervously waiting about half an hour before the others showed up, and then we all waited a further half hour or so whilst waiting for Renske's local friend to arrive. Eventually he did, and we quickly made our way from that area and into a nearby cocktail bar.

It was a funky little place, with a very red interior. Initially we went into one of the rooms in the back of the place, however it seemed that there was some kind of mafia-ish meeting taking place, and we decided to get out of their before anyone noticed. A cocktail and a beer later saw us leave the establishment and eagerly follow Renske's friend to what was sure to be a great club, as Berlin has quite a big reputation for having some of the worlds best nightlife.

The place we ended up in was Kaffe Burger, an indie little bar that came recommended by Renske's local and also got a good wrap in a couple of travel guides. The music they played was very varied, and whilst the dance floor started off pretty bare, after a few hours and a few drinks the place was near capacity. The music wasn't totally my scene, but after a few more drinks and then quite a few good tracks in a row I started to get into a groove, though dancing wouldn't have been the right term due to the throngs of people in the way. It was more like group swaying.

As the night wore on, I started to lose interest again until the DJ threw on "Chocolate Salty Balls" by Chef/Isaac Hayes, and whilst I don't think anyone else there knew what the song was, I'm sure I entertained a lot of people with my particularly enthusiastic shenanigans. This continued a few songs later when they put on "Gay Bar" by Electric Six. Two songs that I never would have expected to hear in a popular club both got played in quick succession. Brilliant! Shortly after I saw Renske home, wished her well on the rest of her journey (she was leaving the next day) and made it back to my own hostel.

The next day I spent the morning doing my washing, and had hoped to go wander around the Pergamon museum, the Gates of Babylon being high on my to-see list. Unfortunately being a Monday all of the museums were shut, and so I decided to check out the Reichstag instead. It is the German parliament building, with a massive glass dome over the top of it. I waited in the queue to get in for about an hour, and then made my way up the circular staircase that traversed the interior of the dome. It gives a fantastic vista of the entirety of Berlin, and they even give you a little panoramic map that points out the various features of the city from your respective vantage point.

After admiring the view for a short while I went back down and walked around the top part of the roof for a while, said hi to an Irish bloke from my hostel that was also there, and then made my way back to the hostel for a nap. An hour or so later I got up and went down to the bar, waiting on a couple of people who were to meet me there and then head off to a pub crawl arranged by the same mob that do the walking tours.

Whilst in the bar I ran into 3 English guys whom I quickly convinced to join us on the evening shenanigans, followed by another Aussie girl, Danni, two Canadian guys from my room, Mike and Alex, another Canadian girl at the bar Maggi, and Michael (the Melbourne guy from my room) brought along Jo and Sarah, a couple of English girls. Basically I'd formed a group of over ten people and I took them all down to the starting point of the pub crawl, though my efforts weren't even rewarded with a discount.

We started the warm up at the first bar, with free beers (until the kegs ran out), and we initiated some drinking games. I showed our little group the games I'd learnt in Prague, specifically Fuzzy Duck. Sarah also got in on the games, and introduced us to "21", a game that we'd continue to play for the rest of the night. By the time the pub crawl moved from this first pub, the group was about a hundred strong, filling up the footpath for quite a distance as we changed venues. Maggi and I grabbed a kebab on the way, as neither of us had eaten, and after quickly woofing those down, chased the group into the second bar.

The second bar was pretty cool, with plenty of floor space and some tables and chairs around the edges. I found Sarah and Jo with part of our group sitting at one of the said tables, continuing their rendition of 21. One of the coolest parts of the place was definitely the wrought iron dragon head that was attached to one side of the bar, occasionally spewing out a massive fireball in the middle of the club whenever one of the bartenders got bored and pressed a little button.

We didn't seem to spend that long there, only having time for a couple of drinks and another frustrating couple of rounds of 21's, a few of the group (the English guys) having a bit of a struggle with the rules. We were shepherded out of that place and into the third of the evening, with Sarah and I chasing one of the organisers of the event around getting as many free shots of Vodka and orange as we could. Sarah had made it a point that we must toast to something everytime we took a shot. She also made it a point to make each of her toasts to something that was designed to irk me as much as possible, whether it be to the Queen or the English rubgy team.

The third place was significantly smaller than the last, but we managed to secure another area of chairs where we could continue, once more, to try and get something out of our drinking game. Unfortunately by this stage most of the group was fairly drunk, and it didn't take long before we simply gave up. It was quite crowded, and again, before long we were on our way to the next venue. I continued to chase the organiser around for vodka shots, however Sarah had decided not to keep up with me any more, to the point of starting to throw hers out over the ground. I found this particularly frustrating, and anyone that knows me will understand that I abhor the wastage of perfectly good alcohol. Right before we managed to enter the fourth bar, I'd gotten a couple more shots for us, at which point some guy tripped over in front me of, throwing the shots all over the front of my shirt. Needless to say I was not impressed.

The fourth bar was an upstairs place, with a fairly packed dance floor and some good drum 'n bass music playing through the club. I found myself a chair and continued chatting with those around, but really there wasn't much to say about the place. The pub crawl had dwindled in number by this stage, probably down to about a third of the original group. We left the joint and headed to the metro when the rest of our group decided that we'd had enough of the organised shenanigans. We made our way back to the hostel bar, which had closed. Sarah and I dashed upstairs to play some pool, only to find the table wasn't working. We went back down and asked the bartenders where a good club was around the area, and he marked one on the map for us.

Sarah, Jo, Mike and I made our way there, only to find it was the Kaffe Burger once more, and I couldn't believe I'd been directed to the same place two nights in a row. It really just wasn't that good. However it was late, and Mike and Sarah had gotten into some ridiculous conversation about whether it was worth killing a baby in order to save a lot more lives, so Jo and I left them outside to continue their debate and went into the club. It turned out that Jo wasn't English at all, although she had a thick London accent, and was in fact from Edinbrough. We were talking for a fair while and laughing at the weird music that was being played, when eventually Mike and Sarah found us on one of the couches. We hung out for a little while longer, and in the wee hours of the morning made our way back to the hostel to crash out.

About 11 I woke up and met with Jo, Sarah and Mike downstairs. The girls and I agreed to head to the Pergamon museum, however Mike went on his own way as he'd checked it out already. We made our way down to museum island and into the entrance, nearly losing Jo to the toilets in the process. The place was massive, with life size recreations of various pillars and gateways. The thing I was most excited to see, and then equally dissapointed by was the Gates of Babylon. It was indeed massive, however the blue and yellow paint scheme on the thing made it look like a giant childrens toy, rather than one the most intimidating structures in human history. It was about that time that Sarah realised that very little of what was in the museum was actually authentic, and was mostly recreated with plaster, and then she lost all respect for the place. This combined with a severe lack of sleep from the previous evening saw the two girls start bursting into strange fits of laughter about topics I didn't understand, and I just chalked it up to their slow descent into madness.

Eventually we'd all had enough of the ancient artifacts and made our way out to get a late lunch. It was here that Mike rejoined us, and after a couple pizzas and a round of beer, we made our way to the new art gallery. I'm usually not a fan of these sorts of places, I've never really understood painting, and this was compounded by Mike's rather good knowledge of it all. I did see some things I like, including a painting of a tiger with some cubs, a postcard of which Jo and Sarah gave me as a gift later on that day. We only spent an hour or so there, after which Mike and I went back to the hostel and left the girls to go do some shopping.

I got out my little book that detailed all the pubs and clubs in Berlin, determined not to end up at the Kaffe Burger again that night. I made a list of about 6 different places to go to and marked them out on a map, and eventually people started to congregate in the bar. The drinking games started again, with about 6 people from our group the previous night, plus a couple more Canadians, Mark and Mike (we now had 3 Mikes in our group), and another Aussie girl, Renee. We hung around in the bar for quite a while, and after a few false starts about 12 of us made our way to the first bar on my list, as a group that had been dubbed "Jimmy P's Pub Crawl Shenanigans". Sarah had enticed one other guy from the bar to join us, an Aussie game named Tom. He was deaf, but could read lips like a champion and could communicate fairly well by talking. A couple wrong turns later we eventually found the first pub. It was fairly quite and full of locals, so we had a few beers, the new Canadians broke a few glasses and we all had a good time for about an hour.

After that we made our way to another club, "Delicious Donuts", which was very difficult to find. It ended up being behind a closed door that we had to ring the bell of to get in, but once in it was a very funky place. It was pretty dead as well, and we just decided that due to it being a Tuesday, there just mustn't be that much going on. Berlin's reputation for being the nightlife capital of the world was fairly shattered for me at this point. There were about 6 or 7 of us that actually stayed at the club for any amount of time, and at one stage Tom and I challenged some locals to a game of foosball, and got our asses handed to us in short order, without scoring a single goal.

Sarah and Jo had the plan to stay out all night, as they had to catch a 10AM flight back to England. We ended up making it until about 4AM, and given the previous nights efforts, we were ready to pack it in by then. We headed back to the hostel, I said my goodbyes to the girls and we agreed to meet up some time in London.

I slept until around midday the following day, packed up my gear and then headed to the airport to catch my flight to London and meet up with Dave, who I was staying with until I got my feet settled in the new city.

Berlin as a whole was pretty cool. It was incredible to learn about so much history that had happened only in the past century. I would say that it is definitely the focal point of modern history, and there is still so much there that really didn't happen all that long ago. The walking tour was definitely the best I've been on so far.

The nightlife reputation is very overrated. To talk to people that might not have been there you would get the impression that the city is a non stop party. This is simply not true, and I did get out and check a few different places out. Considering Kaffe Burger is supposed to be one of the best places around, and that it sucked, doesn't really say much for the scene. I guess it was very over hyped for me before I got there, and this would be why I was dissapointed. It didn't, however, stop me from meeting a bunch of cool people and having an awesome time all the same.

It has taken me a long time to get this post out, but finally it has happened! Berlin was the last stop of my European journey, and marked the end of what was an unbelievable trip. I can't do it justice as an epilogue to this post, and I'm going to write up a proper summary and reflection of everything that happened sometime in the next week or so. Stay tuned, and in the mean time check out the photo gallery!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Playful Prague, Part Two

My plan for the day was to head about an hour out Prague to a suburb known as Kutná Hora, where the famed Sedlec Ossuary, or "Bone Church" resides. It's a fairly small little town, and an even smaller church. It is more like a chapel, and rather than being made from bones as I'd been led to believe, it is simply decorated with them. The chapel was built on the site of a popular burial ground, and several hundred years ago when it was extended many thousands of human bones were exhumed. A half blind monk decided that it would be a good idea to then decorate the church with these remains, and the result was four massive piles of bones in each corner of the church, a bone chandelier consisting of at least one of each type of bone in the human body and a very cool coat of arms made out of human bones. Being a fairly small place, it didn't take long for me to go through it and snap some photos, and whilst it was not literally made of bones it was still pretty funky.

After wandering around for half an hour I made my way back to the station, confirmed with the guy on the train that it was going to Prague, and took a seat. What was a one hour journey there somehow managed to be a three hour journey back to Prague, and indeed back to a completely different station than the one I'd left from. A few metro stops and a bit of walking later, I was almost back at the hostel when I passed a girl standing at an intersection looking completely lost. She was an Aussie girl, Alison, and was simply waiting for her travelling partner. We chatted for a while and I convinced her that we were going out somewhere cool that evening and she should find me in the bar later on that night.

I got back to the hostel and dropped my bag off, headed downstairs to make my way out to get an authentic Czech meal for dinner. I was blocked halfway out the door by Renske who convinced me to go down to the supermarket with her and a few other people, get some food and cook it back in the hostel. I took her up on the offer, and we ended up getting some chicken, rice and vegetables with a couple of jars of sweet and sour sauce and a few Pilsener's for good measure. Renske and a Canadian guy also by the name of James (and also wearing a very similar shirt to myself) did the cooking, a process that was made excruciatingly slow due to the rather poor hotplates in the hostel kitchen. I simply couldn't get much heat out of the thing, and what should have been a 20 minute stir fry turned into an hour and a half slow stewing. The result was reasonable, however, and the three of us, a kiwi guy by the name of Anthony and an American guy whose name I forget sat down to a piping hot meal. I will emphasise here the temperature of our dish, which by the end in combination with working the stove had me looking like I'd just stepped out of a sauna. We finished up and retired to our respective rooms to get ready for that evenings shenanigans.

I went down to the bar, which had been open for an hour or so, but was still completely empty. I did find Alison there, however, and we had a few beers while the crowd slowly built up. It never got terribly busy, and after a while, the group I'd had dinner with showed up and told us of the club we were going to that night. I'd told Anthony that Alison and I would wait for him at the bar whilst he went and got changed, and about fifteen minutes later I realised that he probably wasn't coming back. The Dutch guys from my room decided they'd like to tag along now as well, and after they stuffed around for a further fifteen minutes we were finally on our way. We wandered out to find the club, walked in a few circles, asked a few shop assistants before deciding to cut out our losses and head back to the hostel for better directions. We received these and eventually did find the club, realising that the reason we'd missed it the first time was because it was completely shut. Apparently Thursday nights were this clubs night off.

I quickly convinced our group that Cross Club was our next destination, and shortly after we arrived, to my delight, back at the place of spinning lights and funky music. The music was a bit different this evening, being of a more house bent, but the drum 'n bass room downstairs was pretty funky. We sat upstairs for a while having a few rounds of the local brew. One of the Dutch guys challenged Alison to a beer sculling competition, to which she threw down hers faster than Dutchy could blink. Not wanting to be outdone, I followed suit, after which Alison and I had a couple of repeat rounds to the wide eyed amazement of our two companions who clearly had never tried to put down a beer quite so fast.

After a rounds of this we made our way down to the drum 'n bass area, and it was here that we ran into the rest of our group. I gave Anthony a serve for bailing on us while we were waiting for him, we all had a laugh and hung around a table we found. Shortly after sitting down I had an extremely attractive young Czech girl sit herself down next to me, and after a brief hello ask me for a smoke. I tried to communicate my lack of tobacco to her, at which point she promptly got up, walked around a bit and returned with a large joint paper and handed it to me. I think the look of extreme puzzlement on my face communicated more than my words ever could, and she retrieved the paper back off me and resumed her search for marijuana elsewhere.

Between watching the American guy try to hit on every chick in the place, and then convincing Anthony to dance next to him so he had a better chance with a pair of locals in another corner of the club, the rest of us just chilled at our table and wondered why they kept turning the house lights on and off. Every five minutes or so the bright lights usually reserved for the not-so-subtle "time to leave" hint would be turned on, and then a few minutes later would be turned off again. After a while of this Alison and I decided it would be a good time to get a dance in, and as she passed her bag to one of the Dutchmen for safe keeping, she managed to tip a full pint of beer all over him. I found this hilarious, and while the Dutchmen wasn't terribly impressed with the situation, he took it in good humour and went off to the toilet to soak off his shirt what he could.

An hour or so later I hit my wall and decided to wrap it up for the evening. I made my way back to the hostel and crashed out. The Dutchmen obviously stayed a couple of hours longer, and by the time they made it back to the hostel were in quite a drunken state. They made no attempt to keep their noise down as they entered the room, and in fact did quite the opposite. They were shouting and laughing and making a ton of noise for about twenty minutes, even after one of the other guys in our room asked them politely to keep it down. This had no effect whatsoever, and it wasn't until I told them to "Shut the f*** up" several times in no uncertain terms that they realised the extent of their annoying behaviour and eventually went to sleep.

I ended up getting a few hours sleep, but had to get up at 9 to check out, as I had to move rooms that day. I did so, had my shower and put my bags into the luggage room, and then proceeded to head down to the bar area. The bar is closed until 8PM, but there is a side room which is fairly dark at all times of the day which is never used while the bar is shut and has a couch, albeit rather uncomfortable, which I promptly fell asleep on for a few more hours. I was passed out here until about midday, at which point I got up, wrote a bit on this very blog and then checked into my new room and got a couple more hours shuteye. I woke up and it was closing in on dinner, Renske convincing me again to have dinner with her, this time being a specialty of Dutch pancakes.

I tried to assist in the cooking of said pancakes, but my flipping skills were atrocious, and I relegated the responsibilities to Renske. She had as much trouble as I had the previous evening with the poor quality of the hotplates, but after an extended cooking session she had a nice pile of pancakes ready for our group. They are pretty much the same as regular pancakes, however with things like thinly sliced apple or banana thrown in. Our dinner party this evening consisted of Renske, the American guy, an American girl, Ellen and myself. It was an unusual feast, but certainly satisfying.

As was becoming the trend by this stage, after we'd cleaned up after dinner we got ourselves ready and headed down to the hostel bar. There was actually a band playing in the bar area that night, a three piece set of two guitarists and a girl singing vocals in between playing the flute. They were pretty good and it was a nice way of warming up and getting a few beers in. Ellen and I were playing with our cameras, playing around with the manual modes trying to get some good pictures without having to use the flash. We managed to get a couple, but the lights that were in the room tended to wash out the photos a bit.

After the band was over we found out that there was a good reggae band playing at the Cross Club that evening, and it didn't take a lot of convincing to get a good contigent of people keen to head out there for the night. It was a fairly different group of people than previous nights, as most of the group I'd hung out with had moved on to different places. Renske, Ellen, the American guy and myself were the only ones from our original core, and added to this were a couple of other Australian guys and a few other people who I didn't end up chatting with on the night.

The Cross Club was many times more busy than the previous two nights, definitely a combination of the reggae band that was playing and also it being a Friday night. We payed the nominal cover charge and headed in, the group segregating a bit as we entered. Ellen, Renske, one of the Aussie guys and myself got some drinks and then found one of the side rooms with a foosball table and had a game of that, and then decided to check out the reggae band. It wasn't long after we'd been there that the majority of the group decided they didn't like the place one little bit and made plans to go to the five storey club in the city. Ellen and I were much more keen on hanging out at the current venue, and not an hour into us arriving and we were the only people of our group left in the place.

Ellen and I got to discussing the various cool lighting rigs they had set up around the place, and it wasn't until she pointed out that the lights behind the DJ were a face that I actually noticed. She described a couple of the other rigs she'd seen from the previous night here, as did I, and we both quickly realised that there were whole sections of the place we hadn't seen. We danced in the very crowded main floor to the excellent reggae group, and after that was over, we wandered through the whole place taking in all of the excellent setup's they had in so many different rooms. We both decided that the face behind the DJ and also the crazy spider rig (see the gallery) were definitely the highlights, and we got a few drinks and chilled out in that area.

We spent a few more hours in the place, including some time in the upstairs bar area. It was here that we observed some locals trying to teach a very frightened german shepherd to climb up the stairs to our area. Eventually they just carried the animal up, and he spent most of the night huddled under the tables trying to avoid the throngs of people, the crazy lights and the loud music. Ellen and I both agreed that while it was cool that someone had brought a dog, it wasn't really the right place for it, and both felt a bit sorry for the poor animal that was clearly scared out of its wits. Thankfully after a while he seemed to calm down a bit and actually was travelling up and down the stairs without a lot of trouble. The time started to push into the wee hours of the morning, and so we left the club and headed back to the hostel. We found the quiet room near the now closed bar where I'd slept for most of the morning, and hung out there for a while before crashing out for the night.

After a couple hours of sleep, I showered, packed my gear and headed down to the breakfast area. Ellen was there, which was lucky as she'd taken her watch off the previous evening at the club and left it with me for safekeeping. I returned it, said my goodbyes with her and headed to the reception area to find Renske. After a quick check on the Internet to find where my hostel was in Berlin, Renske and I headed off to the station. Renske was also headed to Berlin and we'd arranged to travel on the same train, however Renske was headed to a different hostel to me.

A very friendly Brazilian couple shared our cabin, and we had a chat to them about travelling and what it is like in South America, listened to some different Portugese music that Renske and I had on our respective ipods and eventually made it to Berlin in the mid afternoon. I arranged to catch up with Renske the following day, made my way to the hostel, dropped my bags off and spent some time in an Internet cafe across the road. I grabbed some chinese food for dinner, and then crashed out slightly before midnight.

Prague was fantastic. Following hot on the heels of Krakow, the party just seemed to keep rolling, and the people I was able to hang out with during my nights in the Czech capital were really good fun to hang around. The sights of Prague are nice to see, with the cathderal in the castle and the Charles bridge being the highlights.I thought the Lennon wall was also very cool, especially as it was just one of those things we happened to run into. The five storey club was average at best, and at least I can say I've been there.

Cross Club is definitely being most awesome club I have every been to. There are more small rooms with funky lighting and crazy decor than you could imagine, and the music was brilliant on each night. The whole place just had a wicked vibe, and I thoroughly enjoyed every second I was there, and I was there three nights in a row. Of all the nightlife I've seen on my trip so far, Cross Club was definitely the best, and it is a place I'll never forget.

Photos of Prague available!

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Playful Prague, Part One

Originally I had planned to go to Cesky Krumlov, a quaint little town 5 hours bus ride south of Prague. After getting to the Czech capital and having had little to no sleep on the train, I couldn't really cope with the concept of having to work out the busses and then travelling for half the day to get down there. Added to that was my destination following Cesky being Prague, and the fact that I was here already just meant that the nice little quiet town simply got cut out of my intinerary.

The first thing to do when arriving in a new country, specifically a country with a currency that you do not have, is to find the closest ATM and get some cash. There's about 4 euro to 100 Krone, and so I figured that 2000 Krone would be enough to get me started. In my sleepless dazed state I wandered over to the nearest cash machine, punched in the relevant numbers and awaited my fortune. The machine went through the usual clunks and noises, spit out my card and then spit out my money; a single 2000 Krone bill. Thats like getting an 80 dollar note where most things cost below 2. Basically, no one wants to accept tender of such a large denomination.

Chris and I made our way to Sir Toby's hostel, a place that had been recommended to us by various people back in Krakow. He'd made a reservation whilst I hadn't, but the very helpful lady behind the counter was able to squeeze me into one of their rooms. It was here that I was able to break my 2000 Krone note and get some useful currency out of it, and after dumping our bags in the luggage room, Chris and I decided that we shouldn't waste a whole day, and got the tram into the city itself.

Our hostel was only a ten minute tram ride or so to the city center, and upon entering the tram both of us tried to be the bigger man and didn't take the single seat that was in close proximity. At the next stop an elderly man walked on, requested the seat to which we gladly offered. He seemed enamoured with our generosity and began to strike up conversation, explaining that he actually lived in Chicago and was over here to visit his mother who was ill. He began giving us his opinion on the Czech governing policies and what it is like to be a Czech citizen, punctuating these pearls of wisdom with why he prefers to live in Chicago. When it came to his stop, he insisted on us getting out with him, and so began our own private tour of Prague by the very friendly local old guy. He took us to a couple of the major landmarks in the city, explained what they were for and their history. He was very excited not for the landmarks themselves, but rather for the historical significance that they symbolised. To illustrate, there was one particular structure, a kind of gate from when the city was walled in, and it doesn't look very impressive, but several significant historical events had happened there. In his mind, this made the structure incredibly exciting and valuable to him, and he communicated this to us with no shortage of enthusiasm.

He took us to the main street of the city and pointed out what was in different directions, and where he recommended we spend our time. He gave us his opinion on where to change money, and urged us "Don't take their bullshit!" if anything seemed a bit dodgy. He then pointed to an Irish pub up the road that he vouched was an excellent place for watching the soccer, and just when Chris and I became concerned that we were going to be stuck with this guy a great deal longer than we probably had wanted, he wished us all the best, gave us a few other small tips and was off. It was a very cool experience, and probably the friendliest local I've met anywhere on my trip.

Chris and I continued our journey around Prague, checked out the main street that was very busy and ran through most of the main part of the city. It had the massive National Museum at one end, and the famous Charles Bridge at the other. We walked from the former to the latter, and then across the bridge. The bridge itself was crammed full of people, with many characiture artists doing their thing, several small stalls selling beads and necklaces and the like, and a musical group calling themselves the "Bridge Band". They were actually quite good, a trumpeter, a tromboner, a tuba-er. What was most interesting was the guy playing the washboard. He had metal thimbles on each of his fingers, and ran and tapped them along a steel washboard, essentially sounding like a tap dancer. He was definitely the star of the show, and the audience seemed to appreciate his solo efforts the best.

Struggling through the throngs of people, we eventually made it to the other end of the bridge. We continued down along the river and came across what is known as the Lennon wall. There is a mask resembling John Lennon that is affixed to it, and the whole thing is covered in various graffiti. Apparently it used to be where the youth of Prague would come to write their opinions on the current government, and today has become a sort of shrine for the advancement of hippy ideals. What I liked the most was one piece of graffiti on the wall that wrote "Coexist" with various religious symbols. The picture is currently on the wikipedia link, but here is a direct one in case it gets changed.

We walked further down the river and crossed back over to our side, saw the opera house and also the dancing building. I was excited to see what would constitute a dancing building, but by the time we'd gotten there I was completely knackered from our few hours of walking and while it is fairly funky looking, I didn't feel it was worth the effort to get down there. After standing there for a brief minute and taking a snap, we got back on the tram and headed to the hostel. We both crashed out for a couple of hours and then got some pasta at the restaurant next door.

By the time we'd finished dinner, the bar in the hostel had opened up, and was fairly quiet. We had a few beers and slowly met the people from the hostel who were filtering into the bar. It was during this initial lull period that we both met Renske, a very friendly traveller from Holland who had learned a majority of her English whilst living in the US. As a result, she had a very strong American accent whilst speaking English, but she didn't seem to take too much offence at being pegged as a yank. We tried to convince her to head out with us later that evening, but she'd made up her mind to have a quiet one, promised to head out with us another night and after finishing her cup of tea she left to get some sleep.

After a while we realised there was a reasonable contingent planning on heading to the biggest club in Prague; a five storey establishment with the reputation of being one of the biggest clubs in Europe. A few more beers were had, Pilsener Urquell and Kolner being the ones availabe, and at less than a euro a pint they go down quite well! Chris and I ended up sharing a table with a couple of Scottish guys and two English girls, and both the Scots and Chris delighted in showing us all a bunch of drinking games. The first was "Fuzzy Duck", which involves each person in turn having to say "Fuzzy Duck" until someone decides to say "Does he?". At this point the order is reversed, and then everyone in turn must pronounce "Ducky Fuzz", again, until someone utters "Does he?". The first to screw it up takes a drink and begins the next round. It may sound simple, but do it with yourself in your head a few times and you'll soon realise the hilarity that can be had.

The second drinking game that Chris introduced was "Ping, Pang, Pong!". Each person in turn must say the words in order. The person to say "Pong!" looks at someone, who is then required to start the sequence again with "Ping". For instance, Chris would say "Ping", I on his left would say "Pong", and the person on my left would say "Pang!" and glare at someone who would then have to say "Ping". The trick is to glare at someone whilst saying "Ping" or "Pang", and have them say something out of turn. Again, the first to screw up takes a drink, and it is also a very simple and fun game to whittle down the beers.

This went on for some time, and once the group got moving, we followed the Scots, who had increased in number once they'd found their other couple of friends, and also knew the way to the joint due to previous excursions. The tram could only take us so far, and the remainder of the walk took quite a while, about another 30 minutes. Looking at the map from time to time I think it could have been cut down significantly, but the roads of Prague aren't very regular, and I wasn't in the mood to be leader that evening.

We got to the club shortly after midnight, payed our entry fee and began to scope the place out. The bottom floor was fairly generic hip hop and R&B, and Chris and I quickly lost the rest of our group as we waited at the bar. I don't recall the name of the beer that was on tap, as it was a brand I hadn't heard of and haven't since, but I -do- recall that it was a 12% variety, but still tasted quite good. After retrieving our drinks we made our way to the next floor up which was a kind of loungey and chilled out area, skipping to the next one which was the trance/dance floor. The music was pretty commercial, but listenable, and we hung around there for a breif period before realising that none of our group were here either and made our way to the next floor up.

Upon entering it was clear that this was where a good percentage of the club population was, a population primarily made up of teenagers and people in their very early 20's. This floor was what I call the "cheesy retro floor", with everything from early Michael Jackson, to MC Hammer being pumped out of the ample speakers. The place was also where the majority of the girls were, so if you could stand listening to the crap in the soundwaves, there was a fair amount of eye candy to look at.

Chris couldn't quite finish his beer as the extra kick was giving him trouble, so he skipped a round and then decided that it was Mojito time. In fact, it seemed to be Mojito time for the rest of the night, and we must have gotten through quite a number of them by the time we left. Braving the cheesy retro floor for a while longer, as thats where our group had ended up, we sang crappy songs and danced crappy dances until eventually we'd had all we could take and went back down to the trance floor. The music hadn't changed much from when we were there a couple hours previously, and the generic house and trance music continued playing for the rest of the night. It was an extreme improvement over the trash upstairs, but had I gone into a club where this was the main floor then I would have been dissapointed. However, the company was good and we kept our groove on until 5ish at which point it was unanimously decided to head back to the hostel before the sun came up.

The walk back was just as long as the walk there, punctuated by a strange sculpture of a pig on a diving board (see the photo gallery), and a lot of puzzled faces as we tried to work out how the astronomical clock worked in the main square. Deciding the thing was broken anyway, we left it after a few minutes of pondering and managed to get back to the hostel around 6.

I had agreed to meet Chris the next day around 1, and we had it on our agenda to head up to the Prague castle. We battled with the trams trying to get there, the number we'd been given seemed to have been cancelled. Eventually we gave up and used the metro instead, and walked the rest of the way. It wasn't a terribly long walk, but the castle is up on a hill, so the steepness combined with our alcohol induced lethargy from the previous evening meant it was something of a battle to get up there.

The castle is supposed to be one of the biggest in the world, but it doesn't really look like a traditional fortified castle. It's more like a big collection of conjoined buildings, with a fairly elaborate cathedral in the center. I'd originally thought the cathedral was the castle, as it is the only real ornate building in the whole complex. There were quite a number of people milling about, taking in the sights of the area, with entrance to the cathedral being free. Chris and I were both fairly unimpressed with the castle parts themselves, and didn't really feel like paying the entrance fee to go into what was likely just another museum, but checked out the interior of the cathedral which was quite interesting. We also walked to the top of the tower, 287 steps that we both probably could have done without. The view was impressive though, and after catching our breath and milling about for a while up there we made our way back down and went to the train station to work out the timetables for the next leg of our respective journeys. I was making my way to Berlin in the next few days, and Chris was planning to head to Amsterdam. It took over an hour of waiting in queues to get this timetable information, after which we headed back to the hostel to see if anyone was keen on catching the England vs Germany soccer match that evening.

Apparently no one was particularly interested in seeing the soccer, so Chris and I made our way to the Irish pub, and watched the game there. The place was packed with Germans, who were obviously enjoying themselves quite a lot. On the couple of occasions that they scored, the whole place went crazy, and several of the well lubricated krauts would start dancing on the tables. It made for a good atmosphere, though England lost which didn't make my companion very cheerful for the next short while until we got back to the hostel and had a few more beers. We met up with Renske again who told us that she had a contingent of people organised to go to a different club, the "Cross Club", that night which was just around the corner. She showed us where it was, and then everyone else left whilst Chris and I got ourselves sorted. We then tried to follow her directions there, ended up making a wrong turn and lengthening our trip a considerable distance. We did eventually find our bearings and then find the club, the front of it being an open area, adorned by a bunch of coloured neon lights on a rotating platform spinning in different directions.

This would be the first of several trips to this club during my time in Prague. I absolutely fell in love with the place. The whole joint is covered and built from old industrial scrap metal, pieces of car engines, twisted metal sculptures and wrought iron barriers. The front area is a low lit outdoor beer garden and once you go indoors, it becomes a labyrinth of corridors and side rooms. There seem to be three or four main dance floors, several bars and many little side rooms to sit down and relax with your drinks. In every area the lighting is crazy, without an uncoloured light in the place, the majority of it being a combination of reds and greens. Most of the lights are attached to moving platforms, whether it is something as simple as a ceiling fan or as complicated as a moving montage of luminescence covering an entire wall. The most impressive of these was the lighting being the DJ one one of the main dance areas, the whole set of lights resembling a skull face, with the lights that made up it's outer perimeter moving in a hypnotic wave motion. In the center of the floor was some kind of twisted metal object that wouldn't look out of place in one of the Matrix movies, with it's entire body slowly spinning in a circle, with several lights attached to its exterior moving about in various ways as well. In fact, the whole club wouldn't have looked out of place in one of the Matrix movies, but rather than feeling sinister, it just felt really cool.

The music in the area that I spent most of my time in was some of the funkiest breaks I'd ever heard. The DJ really knew what he was doing, and his mixing and track selection was superb. I checked out a couple of the other rooms, the music mainly being either drum 'n bass or more chilled out in some of the seating areas. Chris ended up leaving around 1 or 2, still feeling a bit worse for wear after the previous evening, and also having to catch his train to Amsterdam the following morning. We'd met up with Renske and her posse when we'd arrived, and apparently the group of guys she'd come out with didn't understand that she was a girl capable of taking care of herself. She split off from the group earlier in the night and they spent most of their night running around the club trying to find out where she was. I ran into her a bit later on and she'd picked up a local Czech guy and was enjoying having some chats with him in an upstairs bar area. Once she'd calmed her little group down and convinced them that she was fine, most of them left. As I was the only one left in the club from our original group, I promised her I'd let her know when I was leaving if she wanted a chaperone back, and headed back downstairs to the funky breaks room.

After a few hours of dancing around in there I moved back out to the bar and ran into two Dutch guys and a few Irish girls who all happened to be staying my room. It was quite a coincidence and I spent a couple hours drinking with them, until they decided to call it a night and headed back to the hostel. Initially I didn't feel like leaving quite yet, and I went back into the breaks room which had slowly changed styles into more generic house music. A few minutes later I realised I wasn't really into it anymore, and the alcohol I'd consumed sitting down with the other group probably hit me as well, and I made a hasty exit from the club to try and catch my roommates headed back to the hostel. I didn't actually catch up to them until I made it inside the hostel, making a far too enthusiastic dash up the stairs and nearly falling the whole way back down. It was not my most graceful of moments, but luckily I was uninjured and crashed out promptly to bed. It wasn't until the next day that I realised I'd completely forgotten about Renske at the club, and fortunately we ran into each other later on. She informed me that she ended up hanging around with her new Czech friend, who luckily wasn't a psychopath and she'd made it home without incident, though not until many hours after sunrise.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Crackin' Krakow Part 2

The next day everyone got up about as slowly as they had the previous, and discussions were had on what was to be done. After a slow breakfast and the equally slow getting ready process we decided that we'd head on down to the Auschwitz concentration camps, and after a few more people entered and left the hostel we ended up with a group of about 8 reasonably conscious participants. After everyone got themselves sorted, we headed on out to get the tram down to the bus station, all 8 of us piling straight on. I was the only one with a ticket which I quietly validated, and not 5 minutes into our trip, two guys got on the tram in plain clothes and started asking people for tickets. Some of the group started acting the dumb tourist without a ticket, but we were all ushered off the tram and the next fifteen minutes were spent arguing with the two guys, who looked very dodgy, about how much fine they should have to pay. It involved a lot of slow communication and bargaining, at one point the guy pulling out his phone to call the police. Eventually I think they got the fine down to about 30 wotsits each, which I think equated to a little less than 10 euro. I'd say the best bargaining was done by Daniel, or as he was known to most of us, "Spaniard", who was a fairly charismatic dude and did most of the talking.

After a time we did get to the bus station, found the bus to Auschwitz and made our journey there. It took slightly over an hour, a time spent by most dozing or light conversation. Once we'd arrived, we had to decide whether to take the guided tour or wander about ourselves, the catch being that the guided tour didn't start for another hour. Suggestions were thrown back and forth, and the general consensus was that the guided tour was the preferred option, both to better understand what it was we were looking at, but also because a lot of us couldn't be bothered reading anything and rathered taking the lazy way out. Most of the group then wandered off around the camp, but Rod and myself decided that we were going to see it all pretty soon anyway and were content just to sit around the main entrance.

The tour started, and was led by a Polish girl who'd actually had family who died in Auschwitz, so understandably she was quite passionate about the information that she was providing. It was interesting to hear about the different buildings and the things that occured in the various places around the camp, along with more personal stories about where her family had fit in.

Auschwitz was actually broken up into three sites. The first, and what is actually known as "Auschwitz" (the Polish spelling is "Oświęcim"), was the first of the camps and and considerably smaller than the second, Birkenau. There was also a third camp, Monowitz, however there is no remnants of the third left standing. The buildings look suprisingly good, and if it weren't for the signs and information being given to us by our tour leader, it would almost seem like a nice place to wander around. The brick buildings are all in good repair, there are nice green trees all over the place and save from the rather intimidating barbed fencing around the place, the whole area was quite pleasant. Inside each of the buildings are different displays, and this is where the whole thing became a lot more sinister. They showed models of how the camps were laid out, and described the ruthless efficiency of the Germans in why Auschwitz was where it was and how the rail system easily transported prisoners from all over Europe to this central location in Poland. There were huge collections of actual peoples belongings (original) that had been stripped away from them on entry, and I remember one display of thousands upon thousands of shoes piled up in massive heap along two windows in one of the structures. There was also tons of human hair that had been uncovered when the camp had been liberated that the Germans had used for making various high quality textiles, hair that was shaved off each prisoner upon entry.

Our tour guide showed us the living areas and conditions of the prisoners including the areas where people were tortured in various ways, and the whole thing was particularly sobering. There were various rooms that depicted how the living conditions changed over time, beginning with nothing but straw on the floors, to straw sacks that were used as mattresses and then to the crowded bunks that some may be familiar with from common photos.

One of the last buildings shown to us, or rather pointed to in the distance was the commander's house, where he lived whilst running the camp, apparently with his entire family. I was a little taken aback to believe that someone would live with their family so close to such a terrible place, where the smell and noise must have been present constantly. The last building shown to us was the gas chamber and crematorium used in Auschwitz, however it was quite small, and most of it had been rebuilt as a replica to show what it would have looked like in operation. This building was only used whilst the Germans were constructing Birkenau, the largest of the camps, and known as an "extermination" camp.

Birkenau was our next destination, and whilst there were less buildings still standing there, it was unbelievably large. Once I had walked through the entrance gate to the camp, you literally could not see the end of it in the distance toward the horizon. The actual area of the place eludes me for now, but over 100,000 prisoners were kept here at any given time, kept in check by over 6,000 gaurds. It was here that most of the gassing was performed, with a railroad built right into the center of the camp so they could quickly bring prisoners directly to their imprisonment. Once they had arrived, they were quickly sorted into either workers or marked for death, often marched straight to the gas chambers where they would be told that they would get a shower, herded in 2,000 at a time and killed. There were four gas chambers and crematoria, run by prisoners themselves. The whole place was very shocking, and simply the enormity of the camp was enough to give you pause.

We wandered down the railroad, were shown some of the living quarters that had been rebuilt, saw the remnants of the gas chambers that had been blown up by the Nazi's when they heard the Soviets were coming and finished at the main memorial. There was a plaque in each language of the prisoners that had died in Auschwitz, and I noticed that the only reason they had an English one was due to all of the tourism they get to this place. After the tour was complete we had about an hour to wait for the bus, so we sat around and chatted, and eventually made the trek back up to the front of the house, went up the main entrance tower to get some photos and grouped back together to wait for the bus.

This particular bus that we were waiting for happened to be the last back to Krakow, and without any decent signage, we simply waited around about the area where we were dropped off previously. After a time a bus turned into the road on which we were waiting, went about 50 meters past us, turned around and paused for half a minute. We had waved it down as it drove past, and started walking towards it, and then the driver pulled back out and drove right past us, not having picked up a single person from the place. Realising that it was our last chance to get home, a couple of us thought quickly, and got the rest of our group to a couple of taxis waiting near the entrance. It was the first time in my life I've had the opportunity to jump into a taxi and request frantically "Follow that bus!!". The taxi driver did so, making it back to Auschwitz (the second stop of the bus) before the driver had left again, and I'm sure charged us a premium for the service. We joined the now rather large queue to get on the bus, and whilst we were all able to get a seat we were spread a bit further through the thing, and not in a nice little group as we'd been on the way there. Add to this that for some reason the journey back home took over two hours, by the time we'd actually made it back to Krakow it was dark, and I was tired and annoyed. I may have been overheard to wish unspeakable fortune on our complete wanker of a bus driver.

A short time later we made it back to the hostel, and quickly left again, as it was past 9, apparently the time when a majority of the restaurants close. We found a nice little italian place and had some food, myself ordering the requisite lasagne, a choice I later regretted as I feel that my dish had been sitting in a hot pan for a few hours and had turned rather hard, whereas everyone elses pizzas and pastas looked quite fresh.

Returning to the hostel to freshen up and get ready to go out, I threw down a few Jagerbombs and a beer and began to feel a bit better about life in general, and we headed out to find some other people from the hostel who had headed out to the club of the night by now. We chatted to the owner outside reception briefly, threw down a few of the offered vodka shots and made our way across town to the "Kitsch" club.

Upon arrival there were a bunch of people loitering around outside, one with a fresh wound above his eye, and I began to get a little nervous about the quality of the establishment. It actually seemed to be about two or three places all jammed into the one building, with our choice for the evening located up the top. Having nowhere else to go we decided to brave the place and headed upstairs to grab a drink. The top floor was split into two, one side playing cheesy retro sort of stuff and the other playing something I don't recall, but certainly a lot more pleasant to the ears than the former. Jon was in there doing his breakdancing thing and apparently having a vodka drinking competition with some Russian guys, a competition I dare say he wasn't winning. He was putting them away like a champion, however, and I will certainly not disparage his efforts. Considering he'd throw a couple down and then get on the dance floor and start spinning on his head, I'd say the man has a gut of steel. I had been bought a beer by someone at this stage, and it was about now that I realised how much I hated the staple Polish beer, "Zywiec". The stuff just doesn't go down very well and leaves an after taste that is far to reminiscent of vegemite. It didn't stop me finishing the beer though, despite my companions discouraging. For those interested, Tyskie and Lech are far better varieties of Polish beer.

An interesting side point at this stage would be to point out one of the ongoing running gags that permeated the whole of our time in Krakow. The hostel provided us all with a map, and on one side of the map it had a list of what it considered useful phrases in Polish. Amongst these included things like "Hello", "Please" and "Thank you", but also some other rather interesting ones such as "Are you a nurse?", "Do you have any available brothers/sisters?", and the kicker was "May I please fondle your buttocks?". I don't think anyone was game enough to try the latter while we were out, but the most hilarious to us (the boys at least), was "Do you know how to play the trumpet?". This would constantly get thrown about no matter where we are, and I do know that Rod gave this one a crack in a club, only to have the response "Well no, but I do know how to play the keyboard!". Apparently the lass didn't quite understand the euphemism.

Chris, the Englishmen that I would end up spending the next few days of travelling with, joined us at the club and actually ended up hanging around longer than any of us. We had a small group hanging around at one table, but the vibe wasn't quite as tight as it had been the previous night. Rod and Steve had found some chicks that they'd hooked up with the night previous, and were busy making repeat inroads there, and a lot of the Americans had already left that day. It was still a fun place to hang out, but none of it really left a lasting impression on me, and by about 3 I think most of our group had dissapeared. Chris had decided to move back to the cheese room to try and find some girls, a mission he was successful with and ended up bringing his prize back to the hostel around 5 in the morning, and the Spaniard tried his luck elsewhere in the club and managed to get a few numbers to chase up the following day. Clare and I left shortly after 3, picked up a couple more beers at a 24 hour shop, however it seems that once it gets dark you need to make your purchases through a rather intimidating iron grate. We hung out for a while back at the hostel and watched people slowly trickle their way back home, and a few hours later called it a night ourselves.

In what was becoming quite a trend by this stage, everyone was in bed until close to midday. Eventually we all roused once more, discussed the previous nights shenanigans, ate more cheese and yoghurt amongst deciding to check out Krakow's other primary tourist attraction, the salt mines. The transport there was a considerably simpler task, just a 20 minutes bus straight to the place, a fine free event. Deciding that our meager breakfast wasn't quite sufficient, we went to the restaurant across the road. I went for the chicken skewer, which far outshone the rest on the table, with my companions each receiving a rather small dish of scrambled eggs. Most decided to get back on the wagon with a pint to go down with it, and ensuring I steered clear of that horrible Zywiec stuff I ordered a Carlsberg to be safe, as the wait staff here didn't speak a word of English.

After a time we finally got to the salt mines themselves, and upon queueing we discussed which entrance fee we should get. There are two options, an English tour or a Polish tour. Tim, one of the bright sparks of our group suggested that if we were to get the Polish tour we could save a few bucks (it was cheaper), and we'd still get to see the whole thing. No one really disputed this, despite the saving being a rather paltry 4 or 5 euro, and off we went into the mine following a chap whom we couldn't understand a word of. We traversed down about 30 flights of stairs to get into the mine, and then set off walking through what was apparently only 2% of the entire underground labyrinth. This 2% still took a few hours, stopping in each cavern where there were various puppets and animatronics showing what would happen in different parts of the mine. Chris and I attempted to make our own hilarious running commentary of the place, however after the first few caverns this started to run short. I'm not sure if the tour would have been that much more interesting had we chosen the English tour instead, but after about an hour of following our Polish guide, a lot of us were completely over the whole thing. Each cavern didn't really show us anything different, and between looking at different sculptures carved out of the salt and licking the walls (Jon became an expert at this), there really wasn't that much to distinguish any one place from another. We did attempt to lag back occasionally to try and hear the English guide behind us, but after receiving a couple of death stares that could only be delivered by an eastern European, we kept up with our main group.

There was one very large cavern that had been converted into a sort of chapel/church, with carvings on the walls depicting various scenes. Clare rather cleverly deciphered most of them and pointed out their chronology, and the whole room was fairly impressive. Apparently you could book the place for weddings and the like, and it was supposedly a fully functioning place of worship. We left the church area and continued through the rest of the mine, which became less and less impressive as the caverns progressed. There was one cavern that was quite large, with a pool of water in its center. We were ushered in, and then a sound and light show was initiated that was just poor. A few spotlights shone on different objects within the cavern, but nothing moved and the sound was just strange and bizarre. We left the cavern all a bit puzzled, not sure what they were trying to accomplish with the spectacle.

Eventually we made it to the end of the tour, and we quickly found our way through about twenty different gift shops, and up into a very rickety and small elevator. We left the mine completely, and most of us agreed (the Irish girls not so much, they seemed to enjoy the experience at least somewhat), that the whole thing was a bit of a waste of time. I'm not even sure if we'd gone on the English tour that the excursion would have been much better for it. Most fell asleep on the short bus ride back to the hostel, and then pretty much everyone went back to bed for a couple of hours.

Later we headed out to get some dinner, but again leaving it a bit too late there were few places open. We had a group of about 10 people, and went into one place that wouldn't serve us because they "didn't have enough cooks in the kitchen". After a time we found a rather large mexican restaurant that was willing to accept our patronage, however split us up into smaller groups as they wouldn't allow us to move any tables. I ordered some ribs that were wholly unsatisfying (compared to those I'd had in Innsbruck), as the rib bones broke while I was trying to pull them apart, and the meat quality was just generally pretty average. We had a round of cocktails as they were fairly inexpensive, and after everyone was finished, "Boo" left as he had to make a train, and then the rest of us went back to the hostel to get ready for this evenings shenanigans.

The mood back at the hostel was fairly lackluster, drinks started flowing but I would describe it as more of a trickle than a fountain of alcohol. Clare challenged a bunch of us to scrabble, but this was abandoned halfway through as it was boring the piss out of most in the room. About three quarters of the group then decided to head out again that night, but a few of us were happier to hang around in the hostel and have our drinks indoors. I kept this going all night, with Clare being the only one with the stamina to keep up, watching the punters slowly trickle in from their outings, spent a while listening to a particularly hilarious comedian on Jon's laptop, whose name I wish I could remember. It was something "Tell", but I can't for the life of me recall his first name. Unfortunately typing "Tell" and "Comedian" into google isn't coming up with much for me.

Hearing the stories of those who went out was interesting, apparently they went to a fairly ordinary bar and then later on ended up at some kind of death metal gig, where all the ladies in the house would sit around the outskirts whilst the gents would stand on the dance floor and swing their hair around circles. A few were going to join in the festivities by swinging their shirts around, but were quickly discouraged from such and not long after made their way back to the hostel. I can't say I was altogether dissapointed in missing out, but it would have been interesting to see.

Eventually most made their way back, and then even the hostel staff wandered in about 6'ish to lay out breakfast for the morning, after which time Clare and I decided it was probably time for us to wrap up as well, but not before I was told that I must get up in the next few hours to see her off to her taxi. I did so, and then made my way back inside for another hour or two nap, and then headed into town to organise my night train ticket to Prague. Jon came with me, as he was headed off to his next destination and after a nice sushi lunch and a bit of wandering around the shops, I bode farewell to my breakdancing Asian-American friend and headed back to the hostel. When I returned I found Chris trying to work out his own journey to Prague, and ended up going back to the station with him and one of the other American guys and helped him sort out his ticket. While we were there, Spaniard rocked up and organised his own travel, and it became fairly clear that today was the exodus of most of our core group from the hostel.

The four of us took the opportunity to have another wander around Krakow, saw some of the sights we'd missed so far, and I showed them the rather delicious Polish barbecue I'd found the first day I arrived. There were some traditional Polish dancers and singers on the stage, and the whole atmosphere felt very authentic. The dancing is particularly unusual, basically a bunch of old women in traditional Polish garb stand with their fists on their hips and twist from side to side. It didn't seem very complicated, but they all had the look of people that take it very seriously.

After heading back to the hostel for a nap, we went out for a dinner recommended to us by Slovak consisting of "potato pancakes". He was very keen to take us all there, and ensured that we'd each put down a couple of vodka shots before heading out. I guess I was expecting a small restaurant or something similar, but it ended up being more of a take away booth, so we ordered the ham and cheese potato pancake as recommended and then headed off to a pub around the corner to have a few beers while we waited for them to be cooked up. This was the first chance I got to have a chat with Slovak, and his lifestyle is very interesting. He's been to Australian over 15 times, and regularly takes tourist groups from Europe, primarily Germany and Poland to see various parts of outback Oz, as he seems to love our country. He is very into organising tourist activities, something that was made clear to me the second day I was there when he took a few of our group hiking through Poland and into Slovakia. It was then made clear to me at this point, that one of the reasons he enjoys going to Slovakia is that he able to buy a type of Absinthe there that is apparently illegal to purchase in Poland. He also assured me that the skiing/snowboarding on the mountains between Poland and Slovakia is excellent and extremely cheap, something I hope to check out sometime during the European winter. Once our "potato pancakes" where ready, we were about to get up to go retrieve them, at which point Slovak told us to sit down, and he and who I assume was his wife went and brought them all back for us. It was essentially like a massive hash brown with ham and cheese all over it, and thoroughly delicious.

Our meal and beers finished, we hurried back to the hostel, as four of us (myself included) had to get our asses into gear to make our train. Chris and I pulled our damp washing off the lines, crammed them into our bags and hurried out the door with the other couple of guys who were getting the same tram as us, however Slovak wouldn't let us leave without having one of his evil Absinthe shots. It went down surprisingly well, but left a burn in my stomach that hung around for a good 5 minutes or so. We jogged through the rain, but missed the tram, and ended up flagging down a taxi to get us to the station. We arrived with few minutes to spare, found our platform and cabins and dropped our stuff.

Chris was in the cabin next to mine, sharing with an Irish group of two guys and two girls, and we all got along quite well. I tried to convince the sixth member of their cabin to swap with me in mine next door, which was a good deal considering I was in a four person cabin rather than a six. He poked his head into mine and spied two French guys with their shirts off, and decided to stick with his initial boarding. The train trip was average to say the least, but the company was good and they were serving beer (unfortunately warm) for the first half of the journey. We got stuck on the Polish / Czech border for a good two hours for some reason, an event which I found out from other travellers later in my journeys isn't too uncommon. Even though there was only the one passport check this time, I got less sleep on this trip than I had on the previous one from Budapest, mostly due to the raucous Americans partying with the French guys in my room. I stayed out of my cabin and hung out with Chris and the Irish group (I'm sure their extra passenger in our cabin was having a delightful time trying to sleep himself) until about 3 when the train finally started pulling out of the station at the border. About 6 hours later we arrived in Prague.

Krakow was awesome. It was awesome because Slovak really knew how to make people feel welcome and how to encourage them to have a good time (he really enjoys the tourist industry), and it was awesome because the group inhabiting our hostel while I was there were all really good fun to hang out with. We basically became our own little family for the better part of four days, and everyone was happy to enjoy everyone elses company. I'm sure had the group dynamic not been as enthusiastic and tight that I wouldn't have had nearly as good a time, as I didn't feel there was heaps to see in Krakow. Certainly there was Auschwitz which was interesting, and the salt mines which were not so, but the city itself doesn't have all that much in the way of major sights. There is a castle, which I actually never got to see up close, and the market stalls and town square were nice, especially that barbecue, but what made Krakow for me was definitely the fun I had after dark with my fellow comrades.

If anyone is going to put this place on their to do list, I would certainly recommend "Ars Hostel". Really, the name says it all!

The photos are also available.